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What are the seven elements of digital storytelling?

April 29, 2021
min read

Though we live in a world of ever-emerging technology and information overload, the timeless power of storytelling still lives on. Perhaps because stories are hard-wired into our psyche and are one of the earliest forms of communication. In this digital era, stories offer us an opportunity to cut through the noise and convey our message in an engaging way. ‘Digital storytelling’ is a relatively new term which describes a way of bringing narratives to life with the use of multimedia tools including audio, imagery, video, social media, interactive elements and, of course, augmented reality.

Digital stories are versatile and can help brands to explain concepts and create different perspectives. Augmented reality offers an immersive quality to this process, by helping audiences to experience stories beyond the edge of the screen. Digital stories are more multifaceted than traditional stories, incorporating non-linguistic elements that lead to new narratives. Multimedia effects are not just augmentations to the story, but are an inseparable part of it, providing the audience with multi-sensory stimulation.

Where traditional storytelling follows a fixed narrative structure, digital storytelling requires slightly different elements. The Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) in Berkeley, California, has come up with a helpful list of seven elements for creating effective and interesting multimedia stories. 

CDS’s Seven Elements of Digital Storytelling

1. Point of View 

What is the main point of the story and what is the perspective of the author? 

Digital storytelling allows you to express your own unique and personal experience. It is subjective, rather than objective, and so suits a ‘first-person’ format. As with all good stories, if you cast yourself as the storyteller, in the protagonist role, your audience will be keen to hear about something authentic that happened to you. When you decide on what experience you’d like to share, think about what message you want to convey. Why have you chosen this event over any other? What details are important to keep in and what can be left out? Being clear about your message allows you to keep your digital story short and sweet.

2. A Dramatic Question

A key question that keeps the viewer's attention and will be answered by the end of the story.

This particular characteristic distinguishes a digital story from other multimedia formats, such as a promotional showreel. A well-constructed digital story will set up tension at the beginning by asking a compelling question, and hold the audience’s attention until it is resolved at the end. The dramatic question can be subtle and create a certain expectation that can be twisted at the end, surprising and delighting the audience. The more you learn about dramatic structure in storytelling, the more rich and complex your stories will become. 

3. Emotional Content

Serious issues that come alive in a personal and powerful way and connect the audience to the story.

The most effective digital stories are relatable and bring about a strong emotional response. Try to pick a consistent emotional theme that is reflected in all the digital elements you are using in your story, including tone of voice and pace. It helps if you tell a story from the heart and include emotions that you have experienced so that they ring true. Stories that show the protagonist overcoming a weakness or vulnerability serve to inspire the audience as they recognise their own life’s challenges in the narrative.

4. The Gift of Your Voice

A way to personalize the story to help the audience understand the context.

Though you might not like the sound of your own voice, there is no substitute for using it to tell your story. In doing so, you will reveal a small part of our personality to your audience, meaning they connect with you and what you have to say more easily. Take time to learn and practice your script so that the reading doesn’t feel wooden. Do several recordings and try to keep it as conversational as possible, as if you were speaking to a friend over coffee. The great thing about a digital audio file is that you can mix and match each of the recording takes to achieve the best sound.

5. The Power of the Soundtrack

Music or other sounds that support and embellish the story.

Music can enhance a story and create emotional depth to visual imagery, sound effects can also add atmosphere to a piece. However, it’s important to select the accompanying sounds carefully, as too much vocal or audio can serve to distract or irritate the audience. It’s usually easier to avoid music with lyrics. Bear in mind copyright laws when choosing music, using only third party audio which doesn’t require a paid licence. There are plenty of platforms which offer copyright-free collections, including Creative Commons. Alternatively, use your own voice or ask a friend who plays an instrument or mixes tracks to help you out.

6. Economy

Using just enough content to tell the story without overloading the viewer.

According to the CDS, a digital story should consist of short two-three minute vignettes, meaning the creator has to be laser sharp in their focus and discard unnecessary detail. The script should be limited to a single double-spaced page, make sure you scrutinise the use of every word, phrase and pause. Using visual imagery is often more effective than long-winded description and means your audience can fill in the blanks with their imagination. 

7. Pacing

The rhythm of the story and how slowly or quickly it progresses.

You can hold the audience’s attention by varying the pace of a digital story; changing the music tempo, tone of narration, duration of visuals and panning and zooming speed. Good stories should feel natural, in the same way that we talk; taking pause for breath and increasing in urgency when we’re impassioned. When revising the script, make sure that the pace doesn’t feel mechanical and contrived.

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